Beautiful Thing, written in 1993 by Jonathan Harvey, is about two teenage boys in a South London council estate who, amidst the chaos of their family lives, fall in love with each other.
A dramatic comedy that blends themes of urban working class life and sexuality, this is an enticing pick for the freshers’ main show at the Corpus Playroom.
Theo Tompkins and Theo Collins playing Jamie and Ste, are clearly talented performers who have been skillfully cast. Both perfectly inhabit their characters as fully fleshed individuals, with carefully crafted mannerisms and physicalities capturing that distinct teenage awkwardness while avoiding any two-dimensional heavy-handedness. Both offer skillfully contrasting but complementary energy, with Tompkins’ understated, quietly troubled but sweet demeanour playing well off Collins’ confident but frustrated portrayal. The pair’s slowly building attraction is delicate and believable, with the sense of mutual curiosity and cautious exploration feeling genuine. This chemistry has a real joy to it, and both boys’ moments of fear and upset caused by their being gay are all the more touching for it, without either having to lean into hamfisted pathos to evoke an emotional response – these are complex, sensitive portrayals.
The rest of the cast also give good performances, with Maria Pointer as Jamie’s mother Sandra feeling like the anchor of the show – in a narrative sense, she is the head of the house around which the play revolves, but in addition Pointer has a commanding presence and consistently crisp delivery, keeping energy up throughout and expertly landing every comic beat that comes her way. Mojola Akinyemi as troubled friend Leah also has nice comedic moments, particularly with Pointer in their sharp back and forths. Mithiran Ravindran as Sandra’s boyfriend Tony gives a totally different style to the rest of the cast, with a mellow, almost surreal style that contrasts well with the others. Strangely, Sandra and Tony’s relationship tries to create some of the most bizarre chemistry I have ever seen on stage, and while the script does offer resolution to this oddity, I was still left somewhat perplexed as to how these two could have been in a relationship in the first place.
My impressions of overall setting and style were favourable – Cambridge theatre combining working class material and comedy often runs the risk of punching down with caricature and stereotype, but director Lucy Green navigates this smoothly, with strong accents used as part of consistent characterisation and context rather than exaggeration as a cheap laugh.
Further perceptive direction is shown by way of the portrayal of the 90’s setting being an organic element rather than overstylised nostalgia. The recurring theme of Cass Elliot’s music, continued from dialogue into sound design, is a nice touch, and posters from the era as a peripheral aspect of the set in tandem with the show’s costume design feel representative of the ordinary style of the time, avoiding over-stylised distraction. The avoidance of these common pitfalls shows directorial foresight and experience, elevating the show’s polish overall.
My main criticism was that of pace – while it’s true that at times the cast had to fight against a particularly cough-riddled audience, beyond that I still felt that delivery of dialogue was at times sluggish or meandering, particularly in the opening few scenes. Whilst a slow pace is required in certain contexts, the script’s focus on relationships over hitting plot points means that fluid, snappy delivery of lines most of the time is necessary to maintain audience immersion. Whilst not a critical setback, some tightening here would have enhanced the performance generally. Other points include scene transitions being slightly clunky, and the occasional sudden launch into monologues by staring into the middle distance, a slightly jarring form of delivery that feels clichéd – these issues only detracted slightly, but are still worth consideration.
Overall, however, Beautiful Thing is emotionally compelling while hitting its comedic beats masterfully, and I left the theatre feeling warm and optimistic. No doubt over the course of its run this show will take its already strong start and, in the words of Cass Elliot, be ‘getting better everyday’.